Women at all levels frequently relate their concern about the language used to describe them. Many of us are frustrated by being interrupted, ignored or invalidated. Alternatively, it can be the reverse: having our ideas repeated back to us, or attributed to the man who speaks next.
A study by James Broadbridge, University of Birmingham, entitled ‘An Investigation into Differences between Women’s and Men’s Speech,’ revealed that men are more likely to interrupt and are less likely to be interrupted. What causes this? A lack of self-awareness; an inability to recognise that women are capable of discussing weighty issues; a combination; or something else?
In “You Just Don’t Understand,” Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, seeks to explain this concept. She suggests that men talk to determine and achieve status; while women talk to determine and achieve connection.
Whilst this may seem like a generalisation, I’ve observed this dynamic play out time and time again in conversations between men and women. I’ve also witnessed the power play amongst groups of men where there was at least one ‘alpha male.’ Findings from a survey of US and UK professional women in ‘Hear and Now,’ a book on public speaking by Chris Davidson, also support her theory.
Here are some of my own experiences from this month, October 2016.
- Discussion with friends on Brexit. A male friend who voted Leave raised points about employment, skills requirements and immigration. Despite the fact that I have policy expertise in this field – I’ve even spoken at conferences in the US and Europe on the subject – he simply spoke louder and louder to drown me out. Having had enough of being interrupted, I reminded him of my professional experience. Still, he persisted and recommended reading more on Wikipedia (because *obviously* that’s a reliable and credible source of information).
- Following the announcement of Caudrilla’s fracking operations being given the go-ahead, I shared a news article on my Facebook page. I added my own commentary with a few disturbing facts that I had learned about fracking, evidence-based facts from credible sources. A friend, a male partner at a consultancy firm, added underneath “This is a desperate post.” That old chestnut… the ‘hysterical female.’ The ironic thing was that he actually agreed with me. He eventually apologised, but not before ‘mansplaining’ what fracking entails.
- I recently gave the inspirational, pre-lunch talk at a conference in Leeds. During networking breaks, while I was deep in conversation with someone, a man (different each time) interrupted, without asking if it was OK to join the conversation. They then proceeded to change the subject, addressing the other male. This happened on three separate occasions.
This article is not about men-bashing. In fact, many men are dismayed when their behaviour is pointed out. It’s often unconscious. Soraya Chemaly, who describes herself as a feminist and writer, describes the root of the problem as:
‘Good old-fashioned sexism expressed in gendered socialization and a default cultural preference for institutionalized male domination of public life.’
Further, I’ve observed that the men most likely to indulge in this behaviour appear to fall within a particular age bracket, fifty plus. I’ve mostly encountered it from males who work in certain sectors; including construction, law, utilities, banking/insurance and politics.
While I’ve shared my own examples above, international public figures aren’t above this either…
The Characterisation of Public Figures
Recently, Amal Clooney, was branded with the ‘hysterical woman’ tag by the New York Post. The headline read ‘Amal Clooney threw a tantrum while meeting with Iraq’s UN ambassador’ and described her tone as ‘dismissive’ and ‘lecturing.’ Yet again, a woman who is passionate about a topic was being portrayed as ‘having a tantrum.’
N.B. This term is often replaced with ‘hysterical,’ ‘desperate,’ ‘feisty’ or similar.
Clooney has been legally representing Yazidi people; the meeting was about bringing captured ISIS fighters to justice. Her request to meet with the PM had been turned down, so she had to settle for the UN Ambassador instead. Should it come as a surprise that she chose to be forceful about such a serious matter?
Above her station
Moving on to Michelle Obama, who recently gave (in my opinion) the most impressive speech during the US Presidential debates. With dignity, poise and emotion, she called out Trump’s behaviour without actually saying his name. Her skillful move made it (almost) impossible for the Trump camp to attack her. If you missed her speech, you can read the transcript here or watch a short replay below.
Michelle Obama spoke passionately about the ‘hurtful, hateful language’ that is used about women.
“This has got to stop right now…If all of this is painful to us as grown women, what do you think this is doing to our children? What messages are our little girls hearing about who they look like, how they should act? What lessons are they learning about their value as professionals, as human beings, about their dreams and aspirations?”
And yet, despite these sentiments that any decent person would agree with, Trump’s team publicly attacked Michelle Obama anyway, saying that she is getting above her station!
The ‘Cold, Calculating Woman’
There’s much that I could write about Hillary Clinton, but I feel that this video by journalist Erza Klein is eloquent enough.
Changing the Dialogue
I’ve worked in Equality and Diversity since 2003. I’m tired of the same old dialogue. I’ve had enough of reports and conferences, which tell us nothing new. I’m fed up of being interrupted. It’s time to disrupt the pattern. While I don’t have all the answers, I have found some strategies that have worked for me. You can download my guide on Influence here.
A bit about me: I’m an experienced Board member who also happens to be female, of an ethnic minority background and usually younger than my fellow Directors. It can be a lonely place and I’d love more women to join me!
I’ve combined 13 years’ experience of advising organisations on equality and workforce development with extensive research into coaching tools and techniques to create LOVE (You), so that other female leaders can benefit from the support that I lacked.
LOVE (You) is a modular growth mindset programme for professional women which combines high quality executive development techniques with deeper self-directed work. Get in touch to discuss how I can support you.